In my social circle, there’s a moment at every party in which I suddenly realize my friend Alex is commanding an audience with one of her stories. Her voice starts rising, her gesticulations get more expansive, and guests cluster around to hear about the time she hiked barefoot out of a remote, drugged-out hippie commune deep in a northern California forest accompanied only by her colossal dog, or when she grabbed a high school rival by the hair and slammed her head against a curb for stealing her credit card. Invariably I join the group of listeners, often egging her on. Outrageous and well told, these anecdotes fascinate me no matter how many times I hear them. To what extent they’re true is almost irrelevant; Alex has written her own rich personal mythology. The storytelling is what’s important; those who quibble over precision are missing the point.
The Island of Last Truth left me feeling the same way, and not just because the opening scene is set at a cocktail party. It privileges the story above all else. Digital-age global citizens have so much data immediately accessible to them, giving the impression that all facts are concrete and irrefutable. An argument can be won decisively in thirty seconds by pulling out a smartphone. Which is what makes Flavia Company’s novel such a jewel—small, vibrant, beautifully faceted, and possibly fake. After reading the last page and closing the book, I looked at the front cover and read the title again, realizing that it’s an elegant little joke. I don’t believe Company thinks that there was a first truth, let alone a last one. And she tells us so in such an entertaining fashion.
Dr. Mathew Prendel, celebrated surgeon and expert sailor, disappears from New York for five years and returns in the present day, transformed and reticent. The local gossip is that he was shipwrecked and marooned on a desert island after his yacht was attacked by pirates. He refuses to talk about the experience with anyone until he finally shares it with his longtime lover Phoebe Westore, a much younger English professor, not long before his death. A clever conceit for the novel is that the bulk of it is secondhand information, the exploits of Dr. Prendel transcribed by a woman who wasn’t even present for any of the action and adventure. Phoebe’s credulity makes her both the perfect audience and the ideal narrator. After all,
At no time did I doubt the legend. At no time did I think it might be a falsified story, a trivial anecdote embellished to the extreme and that, for example, Prendel could have lost his boat a few meters off the coast of Africa due to a more prosaic collision with a rock or another boat and later on, rumors had made it into a heroic exploit.
She wants to believe. Her reasonable voice lends structure and credibility to an otherwise far-fetched yarn—but is that credibility warranted? Company shows herself to be a skilled wordsmith here, evoking the legacy of old-fashioned storytelling folded into a contemporary narrative full of treasure, blood, pirates, and beautiful Portuguese waitresses. This fusion is particularly visible during Prendel’s stream of consciousness after having jumped overboard, floating in an endless sea, waiting for death to find him:
He is afraid of being devoured by a beast. He fears the bite, the pain, the horror. During the night he suffered a shock: something brushed against him while he was almost dozing, doing the dead man’s float, and he came to violently. He has lost his sunglasses.
Laura McGloughlin’s exquisite translation skills are in full effect throughout, from Prendel’s engrossing, off-kilter internal monologues to his riveting escapades.
With all those trappings, The Island of Last Truth reads much like a fairy tale, a fable with a twist. After his own bad judgment results in a pirate attack and the deaths of his two best friends, Dr. Prendel floats in the Atlantic for days, his body shutting down, before being washed onto the shore of a desert island approximately 800 miles off the west coast of Africa. He is nursed back to health and then must coexist with Nelson Souza, a fellow castaway and former pirate who uses the threat of violence to restrict Prendel to a small section of the island. As with every mythic protagonist from Eden’s Adam to Bluebeard’s wife, Prendel’s curiosity tempts him to explore the forbidden, leaving him to deal with the consequences that follow.
The symbols of classic storytelling Company uses to embroider this novel are just window dressing for the meat of the story, which explores the murkiness of human nature. Prendel’s fellow man turns out to be a more foreign, inhospitable wilderness to navigate than the tiny, rocky island he’s found himself marooned on. Puzzling out Souza’s intentions is just as important to Prendel’s survival as distilling fresh water and catching enough fish and insects to keep himself fed. It’s less Robinson Crusoe than Crime and Punishment, the psychological rivalry between Prendel and Souza ultimately dominating their physical survival. The authoritative, rational narrative voice of a successful American doctor is eventually subsumed by confusion, doubt, and need, resulting in a shifting ethos that renders Prendel’s unfortunate decision-making surprisingly believable:
In the end, he has given up. He has abandoned himself to the island, has become part of it. He has renounced any purpose in life and has reduced himself to surviving the way his prey do, be they worms, lizards, or insects. He moves only when strictly necessary. He has completely lost any notion of time and his memory is blocked. . . . He is in no hurry, but he has decided that one day or another he will end up committing suicide.
Prendel does survive, even if it’s only as the myth he created. There is no record of those five years of his life, just the desert island and one other man and hundreds of miles of ocean. He struggles to readjust to his comfortable life in New York. All that’s left of Prendel is his story, faithfully relayed by Phoebe. In the postscript, told in Phoebe’s voice, she does some twenty-first-century information seeking that turns Prendel’s version of events on its head: “I walk through the streets of the Alfama neighborhood, erect as the truth that has been revealed to me and that I have decided to keep for myself alone. . . . I find a wastebin, stop, take [the] letter out from my bag, tear it up, and throw it away. I don’t know if it is an act of love or revenge.” What’s revealed is Phoebe’s fidelity to the story rather than the man himself. Which is perhaps as it should be.